What do Patriots need now that Devin McCourty's back?
As is the case every offseason, the Patriots will have to deal with some moving parts. There will be contracts adjusted. There will be additions made. There will be departures via free agency. There might even be a few retirements. What made this offseason different was that a couple of the team's most important players openly discussed the possibility of hanging 'em up in the days leading up to Super Bowl LIII. Both Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty kicked around the idea at the time.
One is still mulling it over. Not McCourty, though. He told the Sports Spectrum podcast recently that he plans on playing in 2019. That would give the Patriots a critical piece to their defense -- one of the most intelligent and versatile defenders to play under Bill Belichick during the most recent iteration of the franchise's dynasty -- for a 10th season.
With the combine coming up next week, with free agency starting soon thereafter, and with a critical piece to the Patriots defense committing to the 2019 season, it seems like as good a time as any to reset the spots Belichick and Nick Caserio might want to address.
Why the need: Though the Patriots have won titles without big-name pieces at the receiver position, they're going to need to add names this offseason. They don't have to be big. Just names, period. Bodies. They have one dependable option under contract for 2019 in Julian Edelman. Braxton Berrios, Darren Andrews, Cody Hollister and Damoun Patterson will fight for time in spring workouts. Josh Gordon is still under contract but is suspended indefinitely.
How to address it: Receiver is looking like a relatively deep position group in this year's draft. There should be true "X" wideouts, outside-the-numbers options, available at No. 32 overall. Then it seems like there are other more versatile pieces who could be had later who could also be quick contributors. We hit some potential Patriots fits in the class with Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo in our latest edition of The Next Pats Podcast. Free-agency will of course be an option as well. Golden Tate (pictured) looks like the best fit of the bunch, but he could also be the most expensive. Pierre Garcon might be a buy-low option. Cole Beasley, Adam Humphries and Jamison Crowder would be slot options who could free up Edelman to spend less time inside.
Why the need: If Trey Flowers is on his way out the door -- and it's looking like that's a real possibility given what he could command as a free agent -- the Patriots are going to need to find a way to replace those snaps. Adrian Clayborn could be elsewhere in 2019 as well if the Patriots feel as though the cap space they'd save by releasing him is worth getting a little thinner at that spot. John Simon is a free agent. Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy can spend some time here, but their value is based largely in their versatility. Deatrich Wise could see an increased role. Same goes for Derek Rivers, Keionta Davis, Ufomba Kamalu, though they're still largely unknown commodities.
How to address it: Again, the Patriots luck out a bit in this regard. The draft is loaded with talented edge options. The question is, would they be interested in spending a first-round pick -- and potentially trading up into the first round -- to get one of the best available? It seems as though their approach has been to spend on secondary pieces, then invest in powerful contain-focused defensive linemen who can help limit mobile quarterbacks. Boston College's Zach Allen, Iowa's Anthony Nelson, Texas' Charles Omenihu and Georgia's Jonathan Ledbetter (pictured) all seem like their type if that's what they're after. There are a load of edge defenders scheduled to hit free agency, but many seem destined for the franchise tag or huge, long-term deals. Alex Okafor is veteran with good size who's now more than a year removed from a torn Achilles who could make some sense. Markus Golden might make some sense as well. A second-round pick in 2015, he's more than a year removed from a torn ACL and two years removed from a monster season as a pass-rusher opposite Chandler Jones.
Why the need: If Rob Gronkowski opts for retirement, this spot likely shoots to the top of the list. As it is, the Patriots could use some depth here. Not just to prepare for life after Gronk, but because there's a chance they decide to part with Dwayne Allen. While he's become an important piece to New England's run-heavy offense, Allen would save the Patriots $7 million in cap space if released. Jacob Hollister dealt with injury throughout 2018 and wasn't able to establish himself as a regular in the offense.
How to address it: It's almost like the Patriots planned it this way, but this is another position of need for them that appears to be very deep in the draft. TJ Hockenson out of Iowa is the prototype, but if he's gone Alabama's Irv Smith could be an option in the first round. Isaac Nauta out of Georgia, Kaden Smith out of Stanford and Jace Sternberger out of Texas A&M all look like solid pros as well. Free agents Austin Seferian-Jenkins (pictured, who's given the Patriots fits in the past with the Jets and Jaguars) and Maxx Williams -- both second-round picks once upon a time -- might be worthy of Patriots interest.
Why the need: Lawrence Guy will be back as a staple on the interior for the Patriots, and Adam Butler has solidified his place as a valuable sub-rusher between the tackles. Yet, there still could be a real need for the Patriots to add depth to their rotation on early downs since Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton are both scheduled to hit free agency.
How to address it: The Patriots once spent a first-round pick on a penetrating defensive tackle in Dominique Easley, but it seems as though they're content having powerful players up the middle to eat up blocks and provide real resistance against the run. Big bodies will probably be preferred here as both Guy and Butler are both right around 300 pounds (though Guy plays bigger than his size). Any 320ish-pounders (or heavier) with good athleticism should garner looks. In the draft, Clemson's 355-pound behemoth Dexter Lawrence (pictured) looks like Belichick's type, as does Texas A&M's Daylon Mack. Clemson's Albert Huggins and Florida State's Demarcus Christmas could be late-round options. In free-agency, former Jets run-stuffer Mike Pennel (6-feet, 320 pounds) is a proven space-eater who's available.
Why the need: Seems like the Patriots will lose Trent Brown to free agency. LaAdrian Waddle is scheduled to his free agency as well. Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon look like the 2019 starters at the moment, but depth here is critical. In 2017, the Patriots needed four different starting tackles to get to the Super Bowl. Cole Croston will be back and could potentially take on a swing tackle role after being in the system for two years.
How to address it: Plenty of early-round options for the Patriots in the draft if they want to go that route for the second consecutive season. More developmental options could be had, potentially, a little later in the draft. (In our recent seven-round mock, we had the Patriots taking David Edwards, pictured, in the third round out of Wisconsin.) This is one spot where the tackles available in free agency -- outside of Waddle, who has experience in the system and performed well as a spot starter -- aren't all that appealing.
Why the need: They're going to need to find some young players to develop in the system here eventually. With McCourty back (presumably), Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon still in the mix, they seem just fine at the moment. But both McCourty and Chung are closer to the end than the beginning, and outside of Harmon there's not a ton behind them. (Jonathan Jones played some safety in the Super Bowl, but it's hard to envision a full-time move there at the moment.) The Patriots have gotten younger at corner in the last couple of seasons, and they could infuse the safety position with a similar level of youthfulness sometime soon.
How to address it: We had the Patriots taking a versatile safety in the second round and a box safety in the third in our most recent seven-round mock, but that may be reaching a little early given McCourty's commitment to the upcoming season. One or the other -- Chauncey Gardner-Johnson or Amani Hooker (pictured) -- would still make plenty of sense, though. Given the roster situation, a young player here would make more sense than adding a veteran free agent looking for playing time immediately.
Why the need: They're going to need to find The Next Guy eventually. Might not be a bad idea to continue investing in the draft, even if it's with a late-round pick as they did with Danny Etling (seventh round) last year. Tom Brady seems good to go for another few years, but a lengthy apprenticeship in the Patriots system would benefit any young quarterback making the transition from the college game to arguably the league's most voluminous offensive playbook.
How to address it: Daniel Jones of Duke (pictured), if they like him, could be available late in the first round. Potential middle-round options like West Virginia's Will Grier, NC State's Ryan Finley and Boise State's Brett Rypien seem like possible fits as well. The pickings are slim in free agency. The realistic ones, at least. Nick Foles is going to be a starter somewhere soon. Teddy Bridgewater might be worth a shot, depending on how much he's looking for, but his injury history makes him a gamble if he's expected to help bridge the gap from Brady to The Next Guy. And he may want a chance to start somewhere soon. Nate Sudfeld and Tom Savage are also available but don't seem to provide anything (other than the fact that they're in their 20s) that the Patriots don't already have in Brian Hoyer.